04 May 2012

Unused Medical Supplies Donated Overseas

Story first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

About 6,500 boxes of Doctor Medical Supplies - sterile surgical sutures, syringes, gloves, slightly used walkers and wheelchairs, exam tables, gauze bandages - are piled up in a San Leandro warehouse, waiting to be shipped off to developing countries and health clinics that need them.

The warehouse, which started accepting medical and Nursing Supplies in August and is just beginning to ship the goods overseas, is the first expansion in the 10-year history of MedShare International, a nonprofit based in Decatur, Ga., that sends surplus medical materials overseas to hospital and medical clinics.

The organization uses a Web inventory management system that allows health care providers throughout the world to order exactly what they need.

The Bay Area's three largest hospital chains - Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West and Sutter Health - have signed on as donor partners with MedShare, which uses a network of volunteers to collect supplies from the medical centers.

Hospitals are among the highest waste-generating industries in the United States, discarding more than 7,000 tons of trash and surplus material daily.

While statistics are unavailable on the percentage of that refuse that is reusable, as much as 80 to 85 percent of a health care facility's waste is nonhazardous solid waste - such as paper, cardboard, food waste, metal, glass and plastics, according to Practice Greenhealth, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable hospitals and health care services.

Sterile items included

Medical Supplies that could be salvaged include sterile items that are part of surgical kits or equipment, furniture and supplies that have been replaced with updated versions. While those materials could be used, they are generally discarded because it takes too much time, effort and expense on the part of the medical staff to collect and find some way to redistribute them.

The excess waste in the health care troubled the founders of Operation Access, a 15-year-old Bay Area organization that provides outpatient surgeries to the uninsured through a network of volunteer doctors and nurses.

More than two years ago, one of Operation Access' founders, began researching methods to ship those excess supplies overseas. He discovered a number of smaller groups and individual efforts by dedicated providers but was quickly intrigued by MedShare.

Well-meaning groups sometimes ship materials overseas that the staff may not need, doesn't know how to use or is otherwise inappropriate, such as equipment with the wrong voltage. MedShare's online ordering system, which is managed out of the Decatur headquarters and can be accessed from an Internet cafe in remote regions of developing countries, helps solve that problem.

One of the most unique characteristics of MedShare is the recipient organization has the ability to be very precise. MedShare places bins outside operation rooms and other areas of the hospital that are picked up on a weekly basis. Volunteers at the distribution center sort and pack the supplies.

MedShare's chief executive officer and founder, said Operation Access approached the organization just as MedShare was considering expanding. Operation Access was looking for a concentration of hospital beds in a transportation corridor that made sense from a logistics point of view. MedShare can collect materials primarily from Northern California hospitals and ship 40-foot containers, which hold about 1,100 boxes of supplies, out of the Port of Oakland.

Kaiser Permanente has donated a number of supplies, including 32 pallets of IV central line materials, 21 pallets of miscellaneous supplies and a forklift for the distribution center. Kaiser Permanente's relationship with MedShare is mutually beneficial. As the facility introduces newer and more accurate and efficient equipment into the facilities, they are able to avoid sending the replaced items to landfills.

In addition to the environmental benefits, the equipment provided to MedShare has an extended useful life supporting populations in areas of the world that would not otherwise be able to afford access to such devices.

Ironically, getting hospitals and manufacturers to donate excess medical supplies is the easy part. The tough part is having enough volunteers to keep pace with the collection and sorting of those supplies.

In San Leandro, more than 80 people have volunteered, requiring training sessions to be increased from every two weeks to four times a week. The group can use more participants but stressed that contributions to cover the cost of shipping the supplies overseas, about $20,000 per container, is the most pressing need.

The new distribution center already has exceeded its expectations for donations of medical supplies. Donations include 80 hospital beds from Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz and 60 examination tables from Woodland Healthcare, both affiliates of Catholic Healthcare West.

MedShare's first shipment, a half-container sponsored by a Gilroy church, was sent last month to Owerri, Nigeria. The organization is planning to ship its first full container of supplies this month to a hospital in Ecuador.

Gloves and sutures are the most requested items. None of the material has been contaminated, it has never come in contact with a patient. This stuff is just taken and thrown away. Doctor Bags are also highly requested now, with access to more useful equipment overseas doctors are in need of a mode of transportation for it.

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